While many Americans are struggling financially during the COVID-19 pandemic, a few are flourishing -- including scammers. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that Americans have lost almost $13 million in COVID-19-related scams so far. That's probably not going to slow down until the crisis is over, so in the meantime, you need to be wise to scammers' tricks.
Here's a look at seven common COVID-19 scams going around right now. If you encounter any of these, do not give out your personal information. Make note of whatever information the scammer gave you, including names, websites, and phone numbers, and report it to the FTC and your local police.
1. Stimulus check scams
The government will be sending out stimulus checks to millions of Americans in the coming weeks, and scammers are capitalizing upon the confusion around this new process to trick people into handing over their bank account information. They may call pretending to be from the government or your bank, asking you to verify your bank account for swift delivery of your check, or they might claim to have early access to the checks and offer to deposit the money into your account if you hand over your financial information.
Don't fall for any of it. If you submitted a tax return for 2018 or 2019, there's a good chance the government already knows where to send the money. For those it doesn't have bank account information for, the IRS is working on a form you can use to indicate where you want the funds deposited. And if the government can't get a bank account number for you, it will mail the check to your last known address. It will never contact you by phone, email, or mail asking you to verify your information.
2. COVID-19 product and treatment scams
The pandemic has made some supplies, like hand sanitizer and face masks, hard to find. An enterprising scammer may create a fake website pretending to offer these elusive products in the hope that you will "buy" them. Some are also claiming to have access to home COVID-19 test kits or an experimental treatment, but there are no treatments or test kits approved by the Food and Drug Administration for home use at this time.
Be careful about where you shop. Avoid making purchases from unfamiliar websites, but if you want to, do some research online first to investigate its legitimacy and look for a lock icon near the URL bar. This tells you the website encrypts your personal information so hackers cannot steal it.
3. Work-from-home scams
Millions of Americans are out of work until the crisis passes. While many are on unemployment, they may still be under financial strain and looking for ways to earn more money to make ends meet. Scammers may reach out offering a job that promises a large amount of income for a small amount of work. If you respond, they may request you to provide them with a small amount of money for training or special equipment. Or they may request your bank account information so they can directly deposit your funds. In reality, there is no job. They will just take the money or the information you give them and use it to steal whatever money you have left.
That's not to say there aren't legitimate work-from-home opportunities out there. You just have to do your research to make sure you're dealing with a real company. Do some research on the company and don't be afraid to contact it and ask questions before accepting a position, especially if it's asking for sensitive information. If you get a bad feeling, explore some other options instead.
4. Debt reduction scams
Thieves know some people are really struggling financially and may have trouble keeping up with their debt payments. They capitalize on people's desire to be rid of their debt by promising debt reduction techniques that probably sound too good to be true (because they are). They'll ask for some money for their services and then take it and run.
Many banks, credit card companies, and other service providers are offering hardship assistance to customers affected by COVID-19. They may enable you to defer payments without hurting your credit score or incurring late fees. These programs are better options if you're struggling to keep up with your payments right now.
5. A sick family member
Have you ever heard of the scam where a thief contacts you pretending to be a friend or relative who is stranded in a foreign country and desperately needs money to get back? The latest version of that is, "I'm in the hospital with COVID-19 and I really need money for treatment." It's a little easier to pull off than normal right now because everyone is so isolated at home and may not be in close contact with relatives who live far away.
Before you hand over any money, you should double check the person's claims. Reach out to the friend or relative using the phone number you usually contact them at, or contact another friend or relative who knows that person to see if they know what's going on. You could also try asking the alleged family member or friend a personal question. If they cannot answer it, it's a good sign you're not dealing with someone you know.
6. Fake websites with exclusive COVID-19 information
COVID-19 has rapidly become one of the most searched topics on the internet, and all sorts of companies have created dedicated COVID-19 pages on their websites to address the crisis. There are also websites that track the progress of the pandemic. Scammers may make COVID-19 websites of their own, possibly claiming to have exclusive information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or a similar organization. When you visit the site, it may download malicious software to your computer that steals your personal information.
Be wary of where you get your information right now to make sure it's accurate and not part of a scam. You should be especially careful of websites that have "coronavirus" or "COVID-19" in the site name itself, as these have probably just been created recently and could be fake. Rely on legitimate sources, like the CDC, World Health Organization (WHO), and government websites, for accurate information.
7. Charity scams
Tough times bring out the good in a lot of people, and many companies and individuals are donating money to charities to help those affected by COVID-19. Scammers may reach out claiming to work for one of these charities to request a donation, but the money lines their pockets instead of going to the intended recipients.
If you're going to donate, make sure it's to a legitimate charity. Do some research online to see what you can find. You can also search the company in the IRS Tax-Exempt Organization Search Tool. If you can't find it there, it's probably not legitimate. Follow the instructions to donate on the company's website, not information you got from a random phone call or email.
It would be nice if you could count on everyone to have compassion for others during these challenging times. But in every crisis, there are selfish individuals hoping to turn others' misfortune into their own personal gain. You may not be able to stop all of them, but you can stop yourself from becoming another one of their victims by watching out for the above scams and spreading the word to others.